The Perils of Marriage Equality

288 pages

November, 2015

ISBN: 9781479815746



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Katherine Franke is the Sulzbacher Professor of Law and the Director of the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law at Columbia University. In addition to her academic work, she is the Chair of the Board of Directors of the Center for Constitutional Rights.

All books by Katherine Franke

The staggering string of victories by the gay rights movement’s campaign for marriage equality raises questions not only about how gay people have been able to successfully deploy marriage to elevate their social and legal reputation, but also what kind of freedom and equality the ability to marry can mobilize.
Wedlocked turns to history to compare today’s same-sex marriage movement to the experiences of newly emancipated black people in the mid-nineteenth century, when they were able to legally marry for the first time.  Maintaining that the transition to greater freedom was both wondrous and perilous for newly emancipated people, Katherine Franke relates stories of former slaves’ involvements with marriage and draws lessons that serve as cautionary tales for today’s marriage rights movements.  While “be careful what you wish for” is a prominent theme, they also teach us how the rights-bearing subject is inevitably shaped by the very rights they bear, often in ways that reinforce racialized gender norms and stereotypes. Franke further illuminates how the racialization of same-sex marriage has redounded to the benefit of the gay rights movement while contributing to the ongoing subordination of people of color and the diminishing reproductive rights of women.
Like same-sex couples today, freed African-American men and women experienced a shift in status from outlaws to in-laws, from living outside the law to finding their private lives organized by law and state licensure. Their experiences teach us the potential and the perils of being subject to legal regulation: rights—and specifically the right to marriage—can both burden and set you free. 


  • “If marriage is the much-exhausted metric of morality in our times, Katherine Franke’s Wedlocked turns razor-sharp insight to the tangled genealogy of its often-incoherent power in the American context. Franke aligns struggles for gay marriage rights with African Americans’ first access to the right to marry, smartly exposing the malleable line between intimacy and the untouchable.”

    —Patricia J. Williams, author of the column “Diary of a Mad Law Professor” for The Nation

  • Wedlocked is a brilliantly conceived cautionary tale of the risks of securing a ‘freedom to marry.’ Drawing upon original research into the complications that marriage rights carried for slaves freed in the 1860s, Katherine Franke warns that marriage rights are not the unalloyed triumph for gay people and same-sex couples that the Supreme Court and virtually all commentators have claimed. Anyone interested in gay marriage should read this book—but so should anyone concerned about the stubborn perseverance of racism in America. For those who appreciate irony, compare this fascinating book with Justice Thomas’s skeptical dissent in the recent marriage equality cases.”

    —William N. Eskridge Jr., author of Dishonorable Passions: Sodomy Laws in America, 1861-2003

  • "[R]igorous, historical."

    Los Angeles Review of Books

  • "[E]ven if same-sex marriage recognition does not exactly replicate the experiences of post-Civil War African American couples, the history of state-sanctioned African American marriage, by turns exhilarating and crushing, remains an important challenge to the dominant narrative that recognition is a pure good, as well as a reminder that there are always (at least) three parties in every marriage. And yet the romantic conception of marriage continues to peddle the idea that intimate relationships are the most private and personal of decisions made between two people.”

    Times Literary Supplement

  • “A provocative intervention into legal and cultural debates concerning same-sex marriage. Plumbing the well-known analogy between race and sexual orientation in new ways, Wedlocked offers a clear-eyed meditation on the traps and tripwires that marriage, as a highly regulative and deeply gendered legal construct, imposes on non-normative communities. With compelling stories, the book takes on the tenets and truisms of same-sex marriage proponents in startling ways. A real conversation-starter.”

    —Martha Umphrey, Professor of Law, Jurisprudence, and Social Thought, Amherst College